The cottage industry that sprung up around Rod Dreher’s proposal for a “Benedict Option” has exploded into a veritable industry now that his book with the same name has been published. Although there are many praising Dreher’s efforts, there seems to be just as many (if not more) criticizing them, sometimes thoughtlessly. Calvin College professor James K.A. Smith, for instance, pulled the race card on Dreher in the pages of The Washington Post; others soon followed. A more compelling critique of Dreher concerns his apparent blindness to class. Is the “Benedict Option” only available to a privileged few?
My main concern with Dreher’s proposal, aside from the fact that it’s gimmicky and seems to ignore the fact that there have been serious and intentional Christian communities at work for decades, is that it has less to do with saving Western (Christian) civilization and more to do with preserving a certain lifestyle that is only available to those who have bought into a late-capitalist idea of what “success” and “happiness” looks like. And then there is the a-confessional nature of Dreher’s work. Despite one time being a professed Catholic, Dreher turned to Eastern Orthodoxy in the wake of the Catholic sex-abuse scandal and yet rarely seems to take his own confession seriously when it comes to confronting secularism, liberalism, and capitalism. In many respects, Dreher remains a Catholic intellectually, and seems to wish for Catholics to join him in standing up against (post)modernity. But to what end? Why should Catholics, if they are serious and intentional about their faith, work toward providing a living space for Dreher, someone who has generated attention for himself by attacking Catholicism uncharitably despite clinging so strongly to the Catholic intellectual tradition?
Only Dreher can answer these questions, and I doubt he ever will. He knows as well as anyone that Eastern Orthodoxy in the West is little more than a backwater with an occasionally overinflated sense of its importance due to the willingness of both Catholics and Protestants to give them a prime seat at the discussion table. He likely realizes by now that there will be no serious and intentional Orthodox response to the problems plaguing America, not when the Orthodox have so many other things on their plate like recognizing each other’s sacraments and squabbling over who gets to claim Qatar’s remnant Christian population as part of their jurisdictional fold. That’s not to say I don’t wish things were otherwise. As heirs of Byzantine Christianity with a rich liturgical, spiritual, and theological patrimony, the Orthodox should be as well-poised as any Christian confession to both comprehend and respond to the contemporary world; but for a laundry list of historical and culture reasons I need not go into here, Orthodoxy, both in the United States and across the globe, remains beholden to an unsettling backwardness which stymies its growth and largely renders it incapable of achieving any higher “status” than being a handmaid of largely secularized states. On the imminent plane at least, Dreher knows Orthodoxy cannot save us.
Not that Catholicism is doing a much better job. While serious and intentional Catholic communities (and movements) certainly exist, Catholicism writ large has been wandering in the darkness of liberalism for more than half-a-century now with no immediate end in sight. These communities, it should be noted, are not the byproduct of a certain strand of academic posturing favored by certain “illiberal Catholic” types, but rather the outgrowth of authentic missionary work carried out by (a handful of) bishops, priests, and religious in concert with a growing body of laity who realize that they have been cutoff unjustly from their own heritage. Perhaps the biggest obstacle lying in the way of these Catholics fully realizing intentional and serious communities is economics. For while there are many critiques of capitalism available, the sad reality is that even so-called traditionalist Catholics are still beholden to the assumptions and benefits of capitalism. They associate, wrongly, a “free market” with the sort of prosperity envisioned by the Church, ignoring along the way the magisterial pronouncements of the Church on just wages, subsidiarity, solidarity, and so forth. In the end, they cannot avoid compromising with the world.
Sadly, Dreher’s “Benedict Option” is unlikely to set in motion the sort of soul searching necessary for Christians of any stripe to find a true horizon beyond liberalism. Even those who do not care for what Dreher has to say are, more often than not, looking to preserve their liberal-oriented way of life which they like to think of us “authentically Christian.” And for that reason perhaps above all others, Dreher won’t win himself many friends. He may be off the mark in some critical respects, but trying to do anything which may upset conventions, even the conventions of those who like to see themselves as heroically “on the margins,” is a perilous task. However, this may not bother Dreher that much in the long run. As the great sage and paragon of virtue, Eric Bischoff, says, “Controversy creates cash.”